Skip to main content

Full text of "The Curiosity of School - An Interview with Zander Sherman"

See other formats

More Thought 

A 'More Thought' interview with Zander Sherman 

"The point of institutionalized education has never been to benefit the 
student for his or her own sake." - Zander Sherman 

Here's an interview with Zander Sherman, in which he discusses his book The Curiosity of 
School: Education and the Dark Side of Enlightenment (Viking, 201 2). 

The book tells the story of institutionalised education, from the early-mid 19th century all 
the way up to the present. It covers topics such as standardized testing, the role of 
corporations in higher education, and the growing student debt crisis. Throughout, 
Sherman recounts the ways in which school has been used to manufacture outcomes — to 
turn students into soldiers, citizens, and human capital. The Canadian writer and novelist 
Will Ferguson described the book as "provocative in the purest sense of the word - 
meaning, it makes you think; provokes discussion - while never overstepping the bounds 
of reason". 

Sherman was homeschooled until the age of 13, has worked as a freelance writer, and 
currently lives north of Toronto. 

(1) What motivated you to write a book about the story of school? And why did you 
decide to call it The Curiosity of School'? 

At the high school I attended there was a student population of about a thousand, but the 
cafeteria could only hold five hundred. At lunchtime, half the school would take its meal 
sitting in the halls. If the administration caught us sitting they would tell us to stand, saying 
it was against "fire-code regulation." That made no sense to me. In the event of a fire, who 
was going to stay sitting? Looking at that policy began a long process of investigation and 
research. School is strange because we spend so much time there, and accept its value 
as a thoroughfare to work, while having little awareness of what it actually is, where it 
came from, and why we use it the way we do. I wanted to write about the story of school 
with the belief that doing so would shed light on the institution itself: the qualities that make 
it a "thing"-an institution that has a history that's shocking, dark, and sometimes quite 

More Thought 

funny. It's called The Curiosity of School because we learn a lot of things in school, but 
never what school "as a thing" really is. 

(2) What are some of the most surprising discoveries you made in researching the 
story of school? 

The most surprising discovery was that the history of school is a testament to one long 
experiment in social engineering. We look at students as raw material. This has been the 
mindset since the beginning of the twentieth century. The idea that an education should 
lead to something practical involves the assumption that learning for its own sake has little 
or no value, which represents a view that I would broadly characterize as pragmatic. My 
point here is simply to acknowledge this, as well as perhaps to indicate that educational 
pragmatism evolved historically out of a desire to shape and direct populations. The point 
of institutionalized education has never been to benefit the student for his or her own sake, 
based on the understanding that the activity of learning is an intrinsically worthwhile 

(3) What is school for? Does it provide students with an education? 

It depends on what we mean by "school" and what we mean by "an education." School as 
an institutional artifact-which is my focus in The Curiosity of School-arose from the 
impetus to turn people into things, not necessarily to help awaken their sense of passion 
and curiosity, which (in my view) are vital to the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. 

(4) In his essay 'Against School,' John Taylor Gatto argues that schools are places 
where children are encouraged to never grow up, "virtual factories of childishness." 
Do you agree? 

I think many people would say just the opposite-that schools don't recognize the 
importance of childhood and artificially or unnaturally accelerate this stage of life in order 
to produce human capital. Of course it depends very much on what kind of school system 
we're talking about. The more institutionalized methods of schooling have historically been 
less tolerant of childhood. In fact, some of the so-called "child-centred" pedagogies such 
as Montessori and Waldorf arose in opposition to what was seen as an industrial way of 
looking at children-namely that the child represents the raw material and the adult 

More Thought 

represents the completed product. It also depends on what we mean by childhood. The 
alternative models may be more tolerant of childhood according to how they see it, and 
more respectful to children as they see them, though other people may find these views in 
conflict with their own. With a topic like education there is a great deal of subjectivity! It 
seems very hard for people to agree on what it looks like and how it works, let alone what 
it should look like and how it should run. 

(5) Were people better educated before the modern education system came into 

The case could be made that institutionalized education-what we're now calling school- 
has negatively affected people's sense of passion and wonderment. In The Curiosity of 
School I was less interested in making this argument myself and more interested in 
providing the means by which it could be made (along with plenty of other arguments) by 
other people. The story of school was what interested me, not how that story might be 
used to support a particular viewpoint or opinion. 

(6) You reveal that you were homeschooled until the age of 13. Do you think it is 
better to educate at home than at school? 

I do not personally support any one system or method of schooling in particular. If I did, I 
think I would be forced to concede that I thought all people learned in the same manner, 
which does not appear to be the case. People behave differently and have different 
perceptions about the world around them. As a result they tend to learn in different ways. 
Some people are great with ideas and abstract concepts; for others, life involves a greater 
degree of tactility and sensory experience. Countless more distinctions could be made. 
Advocating one overarching approach seems not only to ignore these differences but to 
take a very broad view of what an education should do, how it should look, and where it 
must take you. Ultimately I believe that people should pursue the methods of learning 
which engage, challenge, and reward them in ways that are unique to their natural 
cognition and behaviour. 

(7) What's the purpose of private schools? And are they better than public schools? 

One of the longest-standing debates in education is whether private schools are better 

More Thought 

than public ones. Of course, there is some contention surrounding the definition of "better" 
as it relates to the field of education. The traditional definition means "a superior quality of 
education." With this in mind one can indeed find a certain amount of literature to support 
this claim. However, there is a roughly proportional amount of opposing literature that 
suggests just the opposite. In other words one can, using scholarly sources, make the 
case that private schools are educationally superior or educationally inferior to public ones. 
In my book I recounted some of this debate while pointing out that the original point of 
private education was to form a social elite. I think it's fair to say that some private schools 
continue to view education as a method of social engineering. 

(8) What kind of an education system would you like to see replace the current 
dominant one? 

Anew model that would interest me is one in which education is treated as something that 
has intrinsic value. The point of going to school isn't to get a piece of paper-it's to receive 
knowledge that leads to wisdom. And really to inspire people and engage their sense of 
curiosity. It's pretty clear that the present model is not dependably successful in this area, 
and equally clear that education is too valuable to the human enterprise to be conflated 
with social engineering and the manufacturing of outcomes. "Getting an education" could 
be seen as a lifelong process, something that doesn't begin and end with schooling but 
continues in- and outside of the classroom, with- or without the assistance of policymakers, 
teachers' unions, and educational administrators. We are always learning, wherever we go 
and whatever we do. A new educational system could begin by recognizing this and 
treating it as the very centre of its purpose. 

(9) What are some of the negative consequences of having a school system that 
regards education as a means to an end and not an end in itself? 

If we treat education as a means to an end I think it will lead to a culture in which curiosity 
isn't valued-and in some instances even squandered and driven out of people who are 
naturally curious. Today the point of going to school is to get a job. The point of getting a 
job is to make money. I don't mean to suggest that I'm against work, or against capital, 
merely that these things should be the natural byproduct of an education, not its whole 
point and purpose. A curious mind will want to explore and invent and be highly creative. In 

More Thought 

my book I draw together some of the information required to suggest that treating an 
education as its own reward could have the inadvertent consequence of leading to a 
society that is more creative, more productive, and richer in many ways than the one we 
have now. 

(10) In his forthcoming book 'Underminers,' Keith Famish writes: "No system that is 
so mentally nourishing, and so beneficial to the individual as school system's 
promoters claim, would need to compel, by law, anyone to attend on a regular basis. 
They would just go." Do you agree? 

Compulsory schooling is one of the main factors of institutionalized learning; it originated 
out of the intent to standardized the educational experience, making it easier to funnel and 
shape populations. I don't personally see the educational benefit of legally enforcing 
students to attend school. Those who benefit from school will probably go there anyway, 
just as those who don't will find a different way to learn. 

The website address for 'The Curiosity of School' is: 

This interview was conducted by Richard Capes for the site 'More Thought' 
/ moretht.bloqspot.comj and completed on 30th January 2013. 

Follow 'More Thought' on Twitter: @moretht 

Follow 'More Thought' on Facebook: